Dr. Sarah Waheed on “Banning An ‘Unethical’ Text”

April 9, 2015

History & Literature

Banning An "Unethical" Text: The Politics of Indo-Muslim Respectability in Colonial India

Banning An "Unethical" Text: The Politics of Indo-Muslim Respectability in Colonial India

by: Dr Sarah Waheed

Series: Habib University Arzu Center Lecture Series

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Dr. SarahDr. Sarah Waheed spoke at Habib University's Arzu Center on Wednesday, 8th April 2015. The topic of her lecture was "Banning An 'Unethical' Text: The Politics of Indo-Muslim Respectability in Colonial India" and it focused around a collection of short stories called "Angaaray", a book which is still banned in its original form in both India and Pakistan despite its first publication over 80 years ago. An English translation by Snehal Shingavi has recently been published in India via Penguin Books.

A bit about the speaker first

Sarah Waheed, Ph.D., Tufts University, is an Assistant Professor of History and the Chair of South Asian Studies at Davidson College, North Carolina. Her current research and writing focuses upon cultural politics in India and Pakistan where she examines the links between religion, secularism, and decolonization by way of the lives and writings of South Asian intellectuals whose primary language was Urdu. This work is a project which challenges the misconceptions and assumptions about the emergence of Indian and Pakistani nationalisms and attempts to move beyond 1947 – the year of Indian independence, Partition, and establishment of Pakistan.

Dr. Sarah Waheed is currently writing a book about Indo-Muslim transnational literary cultures and anti-colonial politics based on her doctoral research, titled: Radical Politics, Ethical Aesthetes: Urdu Literary Cultures in the Age of South Asian Nationalisms.


Dr. Sarah began her talk by introducing the book to the audience, titled Angaaray, that was published in 1932 and caused a maelstrom that shook the Muslim society. The Urdu literature was mostly male dominated with large majority of writers from Dehli and Lukhnow, the Muslim culture centers of Adab (literature) and filled with Sharif/Ashraf (respectable people/classes). A collection of seven short stories and a play, the book lacked the boisterous flair of traditional Urdu literature and was written in simpler manner on the lines of progressive English writers. That was one of the reasons why the stories hit so hard that angered traditionalists and conservative sections of the society.

Written by four authors (Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmad Ali, Mahmood-Uz-Zaffar, Dr. Rasheed Jehan) the stories were an act of rebellion against the conservative section of the Muslim society and targeted towards women empowerment. As Dr. Sarah explained, the Urdu writers (mostly male) wrote stories from a male dominant point-of-view that saw social problems that need to be managed and fixed for stable society. These problems almost always include women and other entities like servants, children etc. Never had these writers imagined the dominant male itself as the cause of many of society's ills and these stories did just that ... turned the mirror around.

The lead roles in these stories went to entities that were considered problems by Urdu writers and the Muslim male became the center of the ruckus. Dr. Rasheed Jehan received the greatest ire of conservative Muslim society; a doctor herself which was unthinkable (women were allowed barely enough education to manage household affairs and not more), her frank exploration female body and sexualism left the conservative readers apoplectic. Sajjad Zaheer's story "Jannat Ke Basharat" where a conservative older male rejects intimate advances of his young wife in order to pray and later dreams with pleasure about sexual advances from Hoors of Paradise, also drew criticism from clergy.

Other short stories similarly cracked the taboo topics with very forward and frank narrative, so bold that the language used was called bazari (vulgar) and case was made that it would ruin respect, culture and ethics if fallen in the hands of young boys and girls. Urdu newspaper like Madina and Sarfaraz not only launched a tirade of criticism against the book and its authors but kept going on long after the book was banned by British colonials. Even the liberal section of the society didn't step forward for help nor English writers offered any support. Considering the book as against religious sentiments of the minorities, the British banned it and all of its copies were burned by the police except 5 (three kept with Indian Registrar and rest sent to Britain for archiving). Dr. Sarah had the opportunity to read the original Urdu book, the only copy in India, that is kept in Nehru Memorial Library in Dehli.

The authors later wrote an open letter in English (clearly meant for British rather than general public) where they refused to apologize for the content of the book, arguing it was their right to launch it under freedom of expression and that they targeted the community in which they were born in and understood best. The letter did not persuade the colonial masters in unbanning that book but gave a window into their mindset which led a radical shift in Urdu Literature with the creation of All-India Progressive Writers Association ... a platform and well documented movement that gave rise to names such as Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Habib Jalib, Rajindre Singh Bedi, Josh Malihabadi and Munshi Premchand. The same movement contributed finest pieces of Urdu literature that paved the way for the creation of Pakistan and after Sir Syed Ahmed Khan's education movement, Progressive Writers Movement is considered to be the most strongest movement of Urdu Literature.

Dr. Sarah highlighted an interesting point that Muslim society of that era, that had been fighting tooth and nail with the imperialists, to attain freedom of expression that it was denied to was itself denying the same freedom to a section of its society. While on the surface this simply seems like a difference of secular vs religious but in reality the divide was much deeper and it brought out the hypocrisy of the Muslim society.

The floor was then opened for Q&A where audience members inquired about the authors, Progressive Writers Association and even impact of other books such as Bahishti Zewar and Rangeela Rasul that were published around the same era as Angaaray.

Following pictures are of the lecture slides:

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